Kim Pearson, TransYouth Family Allies (TYFA)
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Kim Pearson was a featured guest interviewee in 2009. Diversity Rules Magazine is very happy to bring her back to see what she’s been up to since she last appeared on the cover of Diversity Rules Magazine!
Kim is the Training Director/Co-Founder of TransYouth Family Allies (TYFA) and National Board President of PFLAG-TNET. She first directed her energy into GLBT support, advocacy and education as the founder and president of her local PFLAG Chapter when the youngest of her three children came out as lesbian in 2005. Eighteen months later she found herself facilitating that same child’s transition to living life as a young man. Fueled by her passion for ensuring respect and equal rights for children like hers she co-founded TYFA, the first and only national organization that supports, educates and advocates exclusively for gender variant and transgender children. In its short history TYFA has provided support to over 100 families, and training to hundreds of GLBT organizations, service professionals and government officials all over the United States. TYFA and their families have been featured on several local/national radio programs, national/regional television and numerous print articles.
JRK: Can you give Diversity Rules readers an idea of who Kim Pearson is — where you are from and all that good basic information?
KP: My husband, of 26 years, and I live in a small community that I often refer to as being in the “middle of nowhere” Arizona. We have three grown children and four beautiful grandchildren. Our youngest son is transgender.
Professionally, I am the co-founder, past executive director and current training director for TransYouth Families (TYFA). TYFA is the first national non-profit (established in 2007) exclusively to serve the needs of transgender and gender expansive youth and their families.
JRK: Transgender is a term we are hearing a lot more of lately with the recent “coming out” of Bruce Jenner as well as other noteworthy news stories over the past month dealing with transgender youth. There is still a misunderstanding of what the term encompasses. Can you provide some insight into what you think it means given your work with transgender people.
KP: My work is exclusively with transgender youth and their families. When we use term transgender we are referring to children who do not identify with their assigned birth gender. Most of our work is with children who have a strong cross gender identification at a fairly early stage of life, somewhere between the ages of 4 and 8 although we do get a fair number of families who come to us when their kids are older.
JRK: You are he Training Director and Co-Founder of TransYouth Family Allies. Can you provide some information on TYFA, its services and what your job entails as its Training Director?
KP: When we established TYFA we made a conscious decision to target services toward the grossly underserved community of transgender youth ages 3-18. At the time there was no such organization. We were 3 moms with transgender children who felt compelled to fill the information void for families like ours. We had no prior experience with non-profit work but, we had a strong passion for making the lives of these kids and families better. Based on our experience with our own kids and conversations we had with other parents in the same situation we knew there was a need for information about the very existence of trans youth as well as how to work with and educate their schools and all manner of professionals they came in contact with. Our training programs became known as “Understanding through Education.”
As the Training Director it is my responsibility to attend and present information to a wide variety of audiences such as school personnel and social workers any others that come in direct contact with children. My primary responsibility is to facilitate a student’s transition at school, which usually involves on-site training for teachers and administrators. One of the most important services we now provide to parents of these children is our on-line support group which has over 600 hundred members. Parents see this as a life line where they are able to learn from the experiences of other families in a safe, non-judgmental environment.
JRK: One of your children is transgender. Can you tell us what your reaction was when he told you about his gender identity? What did you do to educate yourself enough to be able to support his journey toward living an authentic life?
KP: My son was not one of the children who verbalized his cross gender identity very early like youth advocate Jazz Jennings.
Our child had a lot of the behaviors you hear associated with these kids. All playmates were boys, sports with or on boy’s teams, and eventually there was the boy’s haircut (a flat top). There were also clothes (skirts/dresses etc.) that went missing, replaced with items stolen or borrowed from our older son. We had no idea what significance any of these behaviors might have. Like many parents, we thought it might be a phase, we had a tom boy, or perhaps a lesbian. I did consult with the pediatrician on several occasions and was reassured these behaviors would pass.
Eight years ago here were no books or television programs to provide us with information and no medical providers who could shed light on the subject either. If we had had any resources at all we might have been able to better recognize what was happening and circumvented the living hell that ensued.
Time passed fairly uneventfully until middle school. There was more and more societal pressure to conform to gender stereotypical behaviors and dress. Soon pressure became unbearable. There was dating, proms, puberty and all manner of things that separate boys and girls of that age. That was a horrific time. Mysterious illnesses came and went with no apparent cause, followed by withdrawal from friends, family and activities that were once sources of joy and comfort. Our here to fore A student was failing 8th grade.
I recognized the signs of major depression and I sought out treatment which included medication and counseling. The recommendation was also made that I not leave my child alone. The depression was so bad they feared suicide might be a possibility.
Six months, many counseling sessions and many tears later, we learned we had a transgender son.
Although it immediately made sense to me I had never heard of transgender children or dreamed it was a possibility. I tried to research the topic on-line and at the library and came up empty. Eventually I stumbled upon and on-line support group for parents of transgender people. This group was comprised primarily of parents of transgender adults. There were a few of us who had children under the age of 18 including the mom of Jazz Jennings, the 14 year old activist who is receiving so much media attention of late. The families there were learning from each other and were a great source of support.
I soon realized that unlike many parents of transgender at that time, I saw his disclosure as more of answer than a problem. The answer was knowing he was transgender, which was the key to keeping him alive. Even though I didn’t have readily available answers to my questions regarding his needs, I did have confidence in my ability to find those answers. For me, there really wasn’t a journey for me to accept him. My choice was to accept my son or to bury my daughter. It was an easy choice. It was just obviously his truth.
From that point we read everything we could find, which wasn’t much. It was necessary to try and extrapolate how that information might apply to kids. I found the on-line support group of parents picked their brains. I also consulted with transgender adults in on-line support groups. They were very helpful in helping me understand what might be involved in meeting my son’s need. The single more important resource was my son. There is really no one that can better tell you what they need than your child. This process went on day and night for months. We just sort of hit the ground running. He socially transitioned in about 60 days.
How did we know we were doing the right thing? Because we got our child back! What was even better is that the child we got back was happy, engaged, and productive. He was still the child that we had always loved, but new and improved version. He was alive again. That was easy to accept.
We have since secured medical transition to a point where he is comfortable in his daily life. He is 23 now, has a good job and engaged to be married next year.
JRK: Being gay or lesbian is a traumatic experience for a child in terms of the reactions by peers. The trauma that a transgender youth must endure has to be much more intense. How did you help your child get through this stage of his life where one’s peers can be relentless in their treatment of trans youth?
KP: He had been so depressed and withdrawn prior to his transition that few classmates knew him. Consequently there was very little push back from his classmates. The few that did know him well we informed via a letter to their families. We were very shocked at the range of acceptance of those we gave the letters to. Some did take a while to come around as did several family members; however, none of them were hateful. I attribute that acceptance in large part to the educational information we provided with our letter and my willingness to answer the questions that people feel they need answered. I won’t say it was easy and we did lose some family and friends which we ultimately saw as a good thing. We had an attitude of joy and acceptance of our child and that seems to rub off on people.
Our training program at TYFA is called “Understanding through Education” and really that is so key to acceptance at any level. People fear that which they do not understand. Family rejection is really the most damaging. With strong family support these kids are much more resilient. If you follow the news regarding the suicides of transgender youth you will notice a common thread. They did not have family support and they usually did not have a strong support system. Even those that have the support of the GLBT community struggle without family support. It is crucial that families learn and accept their GLBT youth. The years when children are forming their identities on so many different and difficult levels is a particularly risky time for transgender youth.
One more note: As difficult and risky it may be to take on the role of public advocate for GLB folks I think it is prudent to exercise extra caution when calling upon transgender youth for advocacy and media. We need to reach back in our memories and reconnect with how difficult middle and highs school was for us and then consider what it must be like for someone who
has likely had their core identity, as well as, their sexuality challenged for their entire lives by nearly everyone in their lives. Let’s do everything we can to provide them with the support system they need to survive before we ask them to take on responsibilities that may crush their spirits. Even the most determined of our trans kids read and watch the news. They follow Facebook. They watched the Bruce Jenner story unfold AND they read the comments. They see and hear all the nasty, degrading and hateful things people say about them. Without enough support they may believe this is all they have to look forward to in their lives. Is it any wonder that suicide is attempted at alarming rates? We can do better. We can give them hope. We must do more for our GLBT children. We must do better for our most vulnerable children of all, our transgender kids.
JRK: There have been a number of issues related terms used by others to describe trans people such as “tranny” and “she-male” that was brought to the fore by RuPaul’s Drag Race. What is your reaction to these words used by others to describe transgender persons?
KP: This is really a hot button for me as I feel many, including RuPaul, do not fully understand the negative impact these words can and do have. Even though this word may have been reclaimed by some in the LGBT community it is not safe in general to use them.
These words can and are used by uneducated and hateful people whose intention is to hurt transgender people. When you live in a protective bubble of notoriety and acceptance in a place like Los Angeles or New York I’m not sure you have a solid understanding of the risk these words bring to the transgender person or child in say rural Texas, Kansas or Tennessee. In those areas being called out for being a tranny or she-male (read as freak of nature or abomination) is generally leading up to verbal and/or physical violence. Where my son lives, if he was to be called tranny, we both fear that it would put his life at risk. He is very careful who he discloses his transgender status to and very privileged to have that option. Unless and until transgender people are afforded equal rights and protections under the law and in general society those words have the power to out people and put them at risk for verbal harassment and even death. So, for however comfortable RuPaul may be with such terms, and even some folks in the transgender community may be with them, they still are not safe for general use, in my humble opinion.
JRK: How can we be better allies to transgender people?
KP: Wow, I could probably go on for pages and pages but, the short answer is educate yourself. This does not to mean, talk to the most readily available transgender person and pump them for details of their life and transition. It means reading a book and/or articles, watching television shows and maybe even attending a seminar. Don’t expect transgender people to do all the work for you. It becomes draining for them and can make them feel as if they are being asked to explain or validate their existence. Don’t ask about the medical aspects of their transition unless/until they have indicated they are willing to discuss it. The example I often use when asked about my son’s transition is that unless you are planning to have sex with him you really don’t need to know what is in his pants, educate yourself in other way that are not likely to be invasive or insulting to a trans person you may encounter. Again, education is key.
Trans people want the same things you want in life, equality, opportunity, respect, employment, and privacy (if they choose it). If you aren’t certain how to be respectful in any give situation ask, from your heart, they will tell you.
JRK: What are some of the most important things we can tell our youth generally about their individuality? What can be done to encourage them to embrace it and be proud of who they are despite a society that sometimes degrades a person’s individuality.
KP: There are a couple of things that come to mind that may not be popularly held beliefs. I think we need to stop saying that trans people are “born in the wrong bodies”. I think this is particularly important for transgender children. Their bodies are “their bodies.” They have to live in them and with them unless/until they are ready to do any type of medical transition, which in many situations may not be available to them until well into adulthood. Body dysphoria, for some, can be one of the most significant contributing factors in their depression. I don’t think that continually reinforcing the idea that their bodies are inherently “wrong” contributes to their wellbeing.
We. as a society, need to grasp the concept that our differences should be celebrated. We are each unique in our own way and that is particularly true of every trans person and their journey. I think of trans kids as being a gift to our society. They are teaching us to live out unconditional love and acceptance. They need daily reminders of how wonderful they are in the form of compliments, recognition, friendship and love; extra ego strokes and hugs. There is no such thing as too much when it comes to building their self-esteem. They need to have a bank account with a hefty balance of love and reassurance to get them through the tough times.
What you said, Jim, is really the answer to your question. Individuality is something to be proud of, celebrated and embraced; show them that by doing that. Teach them to surround themselves with people who understand that and avoid those who do not. They haven’t learned what you already know. Help them experience respect and show them through words and deeds that they are a wonderful gift to this world.
JRK: Do you have any parting thoughts you wish to relay to Diversity Rules readers?
KP: I would ask them to remember that whether you agree or disagree with the decisions these parents and health care teams are making for transgender youth, please always act with compassion. Everyone involved is trying to do the very best they can to unconditionally love and support the children entrusted to them however difficult or unpopular that may be. They make decisions in the best interest of the children based on the information they have available. Most of the decisions are quite literally saving lives. I was fortunate to be able to learn how to save my son’s life, many are not. Treat these children and their families them with compassion. EVERYONE DESERVES COMPASSION.
Thank you Jim for this opportunity. I hope your readers will find this information enlightening. I’m always available for questions and clarification.
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